When Azula was six years old, her father helped her cover up a murder. It was an instructor, a stupid old man who thought he could keep her from her brother and had the guts to even badmouth him to her face. She burned him for that, her flames running brighter and hotter than ever, and by the time any found his burnt-out corpse, she had already gone off to find Zuko, who was never the wiser.
Naturally, Ozai figured it out. So did her uncle and also her mother, who still stares at her with fear in her eyes but knows never to keep her from Zuko. (The fear is unnecessary—Azula would never kill her. Ursa loves him, too, after all.)
That instructor was the first person Azula has killed, but as she stares up at her grandfather, she’s certain he won’t be the last either.
“Grandfather’s going to kill you,” she tells Zuko later. The knowledge echoes in her head, even as she clutches Zuko’s hand tightly in hers and tries not to look at his tears.
Grandfather is going to kill Zuzu. Grandfather is going to kill Zuzu.
“Grandfather’s going to kill you,” she repeats, unable to process it, and Zuko starts crying harder.
He’s mad at her for most of the day, but when she sneaks her way into his room that night, he lets her under the blankets without any fuss. He’s trembling and she wraps her arms around him, whispering I’m here, I’m here.
Azula knows better than anyone that she’s smart, and she’s not as sloppy as she was two years ago. She hasn’t killed another person, but she has hurt and damaged many people—most of which having wronged her brother in some way. She never expected Azulon to be one of them, but it doesn’t matter. He has to go too, and this time, she won’t let him off easy the way she lets off the idiot servants.
Her plan is to wait until Mother has come. Zuko is usually asleep by the time she comes around and she’ll likely stay the night, either out of fear or to spend time with him while she can. That’s when Azula will sneak off to Azulon’s chambers and be rid of him there.
Her plan does not come to fruition. Mother comes, but she doesn’t stay. She whispers an apology to Zuko and locks eyes with Azula and for the first time, she sees no fear. There’s only a resolve. Azula narrows her eyes, clutches Zuko tighter to her chest.
In the morning, Azulon is dead and Ursa has disappeared.
Zuko cries, of course. He’s always cried easily, and he loved Mother. Azula is only happy to act as the shoulder for him to cry on.
Azulon didn’t die by her hand, but he is dead nonetheless. It is enough.
Azula’s first word was ‘Zuzu.’
It was her Zuzu who held her the most, her Zuzu who always took care of her, her Zuzu whose praise meant the most to her. It is her Zuzu who she loves most, always. Her Zuzu, who she needs to protect because no one else will.
Eight though she may be, she knows her grandfather’s death isn’t the end of the risks. If Iroh were to take the throne, she could afford to be complacent, but he is still too raw from Lu Ten’s death. It’s her father who becomes Fire Lord, and that is too much danger for her to afford letting her guard down.
Azula is safe. She’s the favored child, the prodigy, and as long as she does her part, Ozai will never touch her. Zuko is not. If he had it his way, Azula knows he would have been more than happy to let Azulon kill him, and it is for that reason that she plays her part. She does not draw attention to Zuko in the daylight, instead sneaking into his room at night and retaliating against those who hurt him with accusations against her person that get them thrown out or imprisoned.
It's not enough.
To her frustration, she’s only one person, a girl for all that she is also a princess. Zuko is too easily swayed, too easily throws himself into situations he has no right to. It pains her to admit, but she cannot watch him alone.
It’s for this reason only that she goes to Ty Lee and Mai. Ty Lee has sisters and Mai clearly admires Zuko—and just as well, Zuko likes them, too. The jealousy boils under her skin but she pushes it down. For Zuzu, she will do anything. She will tolerate anything.
“I need you two to help me,” Azula tells the girls with great effort. “This is absolutely confidential. You cannot tell anyone of the mission I am about to give you.”
Ty Lee’s eyes brighten in surprise and delight. “Anything!” she chirps. Mai furrows her eyebrows and nods slowly, curiously.
“I can’t take care of Zuzu alone. I want you to help me watch him and let me know of anything concerning.” She tries to make it sound like an order, but her voice comes out wobbly near the end. It’s unacceptable. She’s the one and only princess of the Fire Nation, a prodigy and more powerful than any of these specks under her shoes. More than that, she’s the only person capable of building protection for her brother. If she wavers, if she shows any weakness at all—
“Of course!” Ty Lee exclaims and clutches her hands tightly in hers. Azula can’t help her eyes widening. “Prince Zuko is so nice and I know you love him a lot! Of course we’ll protect him!”
Mai nods. “We’ll do our best,” she adds solemnly.
Azula yanks her hands out of Ty Lee’s grasp and clears her throat. Her cheeks feel a little warmer than usual. “You’re doing the Crown a great service,” she says diplomatically. Mai quirks her eyebrow. Ty Lee’s grin grows even brighter, if that’s even possible.
“I’m so glad you trust us with this, Azula,” she says sincerely.
Azula crosses her arms. “It’s not a matter of trust. I’ve simply come to realize that the adults all incompetent and there are very few who have the ability and the motivation to keep my brother safe.” She has seen the injuries on her Zuzu’s body, on his hands and, on occasion, his cheeks. Discipline, the instructors claim.
They would never have dared lay a hand on her.
“Understood,” Mai says, always the one to know what she means. She bows her head. “Prince Zuko will be safe when he’s with us.”
Azula’s lips stretch into what doesn’t feel quite like a smile. “Good. I don’t have to tell you what will happen to you if he isn’t.”
It’s not enough.
Foolish of her, she realizes as she forces herself to stand still and watch her father press his flaming hand to her brother’s face. She thought she would have more time. Her brother spoke out of turn during the meeting, but she never would have expected her father to use this as punishment. It’s only sheer force of will that keeps her from squeezing her eyes shut as Zuko screams.
She made a vow, years and years ago when she first realized Zuko was not being taken care of the way he deserved. She told herself that she will make a Fire Nation for her brother, one that he would be able to rule with no worries. More importantly, she told herself that she would always be by his side to make sure it came true.
For what’s the point of a world without her older brother?
Azula doesn’t go to see Zuko after he is taken away by the doctors. For all that her uncle is a coward and a weakling, she is able to trust that he won’t let Zuko out of his sight. Instead, she plots.
It’s almost depressingly easy. Ozai trusts her too much. To him, she is a simple eleven-year-old girl—a prodigy, yes, but ever his loyal daughter. He thinks he is the only one in her eyes. Azula has spent her whole life making sure of that.
She goes to Mai first and requests a knife. Nothing fancy and something easily discarded, but still powerful. Mai doesn’t ask questions and once Azula tells her it’s for Zuko, she is quick to get it to her.
Then, there is the method. There are passages in the palace that no one knows about. Azula would know nothing about them, too, if it weren’t for Zuko’s unrelenting curiosity. She remembers being four and Zuzu asked her, “Wanna see something cool, Lala?” with a big, eager smile and when she nodded, he dragged her to a corner of the palace she didn’t often find herself in. He showed her a tunnel and they crawled through it for ten minutes before they emerged out into the garden.
That wasn’t the last time he would do it, and years later, she’s confident she is only second to him in navigating these passages. It’s how she’s able to get to Ozai’s chambers undetected. It’s how no one knows a thing until twelve hours later, when an unfortunate maid finds the Fire Lord dead, sprawled across his floor and blood pooling around him.
There is only Iroh to witness her as she finally appears at Zuko’s bedside. He doesn’t say a word, though she doesn’t miss how his eyes catch onto the blood splashed onto her clothes. She ignores him, heading straight to Zuko and running her fingers gently through his hair. The bandage is an eyesore. If only she could have drawn out Ozai’s death.
“You’re safe now, Zuzu,” Azula coos quietly. “I took care of it.”
The silence is deafening, but she has never felt more content.
(The betrayal in her father's eyes was glorious.)
“You killed the Fire Lord with my knife, didn’t you?” Mai asks flatly the next time they see each other. Ty Lee, for once, is not smiling, instead glancing between them warily.
“I did,” Azula confirms. She watches the two of them. She could kill them easily if she saw even a hint of intent to spread the information. (Not that anyone would believe them, but it was better safe than sorry.)
Mai nods and there is approval blooming in her usually deadpan eyes. “Good.” Ty Lee’s shoulders relax. Azula doesn’t let them see that she relaxes too.
She smiles slyly. “If Zuzu wishes it, you might make a wonderful Fire Lady in the future, Mai.”
It delights her to see the way Mai fumbles at that. Ty Lee laughs. It seems… genuine.
Zuko is not banished.
Iroh is placed as Fire Lord and naturally, his first order of business is to rescind that order. After, he calls for an investigation into Ozai’s death, but it’s not as thorough as it could be. When a sufficient amount of time has passed, he solemnly ends the investigation and when he catches her eye in the crowd, only Azula notices his nod of acknowledgment.
The war ends under her uncle. It’s a political nightmare, but far from her notice. What she does notice is that the end of the war makes Zuko sag with relief, and that’s enough for her to support the decision.
It’s probably for the best. Her Zuzu would break if he had to rule the Fire Nation in the midst of war.
(He’s so soft, and that is why she must be cruel for him.)
“Azula?” Zuko says.
“Yes, brother?” Azula says absently. She looks up and scowls as she sees him standing. “Get back in bed, you idiot!” She ushers him back into bed, ignoring his huffs. If he trips and dies because of his newly damaged eyesight, all of her efforts would have been wasted.
“Come on, it’s fine,” he insists. “I have to get used to this eventually.”
“Get used to it later. You’re still not well yet.” She shook her head and placed her hands on her hips. “Now what were you saying?”
“Oh, right. Um.” He fidgets with his fingers. She waits silently but impatiently. “Do you know anything about what happened to Father? How he died?”
Ah. She knew this would come eventually. Another reason why Ozai had to go: Zuko was too loyal to him.
“No. I don’t know anything,” Azula lies.
“Oh.” His eyes cast downwards to his lap.
She can’t quite bring herself to feel guilty as she wraps her arms around him and feigns grief. All her lies are for his own good, after all.